MIAMI – On March 7, 1997, a Boeing 727-100 more used to carrying parcels than passengers took off from Pittsburgh International Airport (PIT) bound for Orlando (MCO). The 108 holidaymakers onboard flight UPS5503 were likely unaware of the significance of this flight, but it marked the beginning of a short-lived foray into passenger services by cargo behemoth United Parcel Service (UPS).
The idea had been a year in the planning after management at the airline began to look at ways to earn more revenue from their fleet. “Thinking outside the box,” as described by then Vice President Douglas R. Kuelpman, the team came up with the “Asset Utilisation Experiment.”
The airline’s cargo operation was a Monday to Friday affair and during the weekend the fleet would sit idle. Management knew that an aircraft on the ground was not making money and so a plan was made to convert a number of its Boeing 727s into passenger jets, offer charter flights and sell the seats to various tour operators.
Some of its Boeing 727s had been operated as passenger jets in their previous lives and still had windows, wiring and plumbing needed for passenger service. Five of the carriers Boeing 727s were chosen to be converted in to a ‘Quick Change’ (QC) variant: N946UP, N947UP, N949UP, N950UP, and N951UP.
Four would be used to operate the weekend charters, while one example was kept as a spare for ad-hoc flights or to cover any technical issues.
The transformation from parcel to passenger plane would need to be done quickly and cost effectively. Two permanent lavatories were added at the rear plus cabin sidewall liners and seats for the Flight Attendants. Maintenance personnel then installed overhead stowage bins complete with reading lights, flight attendant call buttons, air vents and no-smoking signs.
The final piece of the jigsaw was the loading of numerous specially designed pallets that held the galley areas and two row of six-abreast blue seats, brought onboard via the jets main cargo door before being simply rolled in to position.
Each initial conversion cost UPS approximately US$3m with an overall start-up cost of US$17m. The ‘instant cabin’ which took less than four hours to convert offered much greater comfort for passengers at the time compared to rival operators, a factor management had planned in order to exceed customer expectations and thus attract more business.
First Class Service
Configured with 113 seats instead of the usual 125 with a 33 inch pitch, passengers were tended to by four flight attendants, decked out in a smart blue (not UPS brown) uniform with a sunshine necktie, sourced from an agency that specialised in private and charter flights.
Meanwhile the pilots were used from the existing UPS flight crew pool and many jumped at the chance to increase their flying hours and try something new. A short ground school training session was required covering the differences in emergency and standard operating procedures for the carriage of passengers vs freight.
For just over four years UPS 727QCs were converted on a Friday morning to passenger jet, before being turned back in to a cargo carrier by Monday evening. Flights were operated primarily from Louisville, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia to destinations including Miami, Bermuda, Cancun, Aruba, Punta Cana, Las Vegas, Santo Domingo and Barbados.
Numerous private charters were also flown for sports teams, politicians, musicians, and airline officials had even hinted that the venture could eventually expand into scheduled services.
Sticking to What UPS Does Best
However, despite the positive feedback from passengers and tour operators, the operation was not going as smoothly as management had hoped.
The constant alteration of the interior was beginning to cause a number of issues with wear and tear on the aircraft and resolving these, albeit minor issues were starting to increase costs. Also, the limited range of the Boeing 727-100s created a logistical nightmare and additional complexity with refuelling stops required on some of the routes.
Aside from these technical issues the venture was simply not delivering the financial returns that management had envisaged. Therefore it was decided to abandon the idea after any outstanding contracts had been fulfilled. The final UPS passenger flight was flown on September 3, 2001 and the aircraft were returned to their freight-only role.
Featured image: Boeing 727-1A7C(QF), United Parcel Service. Photo: Felix Goetting via Wiki Commons at this link